With Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi coming under attack for his “khoon ki dalali” remark about Narendra Modi, suggesting that the prime minister trades in blood, the party rank and file is becoming increasingly frustrated and worried over his penchant for making irresponsible and controversial statements.

Party members fail to understand how Gandhi manages to land himself in trouble each time he opens his mouth. The Congress vice-president hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons as his body language and choice of words invariably ends up inviting ridicule from his opponents, who have succeeded in projecting him as a joke.

This has naturally become a cause of concern for Congress cadres who feel that Rahul Gandhi’s inability to learn on the job even after 12 years in Parliament has put a serious question mark on the party’s future and their own political survival. Congress insiders lamented that whatever gains Rahul Gandhi may have hoped to make in Uttar Pradesh from his recent kisan yatra from Deoria to Delhi had been frittered away by his one statement.

“ Rahul Gandhi is hard working and has a good understanding of politics and policy issues but unfortunately he has not been able to shed this non-serious image,” remarked a glum-faced senior Congress leader.

Valiant defence

What is worse is that each time Rahul Gandhi makes a faux pas, the entire Congress machinery has to necessarily weigh in defend him. On Friday, it was Congress leader Kapil Sibal turn to be entrusted with this task. Making a valiant attempt to explain Rahul Gandhi’s statement, Sibal repeatedly emphasised that his choice of words were not as important as the sentiment they reflected.

“The party vice-president knew what he was saying and people understand the sentiment he was expressing," Sibal said. "He was objecting to the manner in which the BJP is making political capital from the army’s surgical strikes.”

Referring to the posters that have come up in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh depicting Prime Minister Modi as Ram and defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s chest-thumping speech in Agra, Sibal said the Congress supported the Army operation but objected to the BJP’s propaganda. “End this poster-baazi," Sibal said. "And end the politicisation of the Army. Let them work silently as they have done before.”

Going into damage-control mode , Rahul Gandhi also defended himself in a series of tweets: “I fully support the surgical strikes and I have said so unequivocally, but I will not support using the Indian Army in political posters and propaganda all across the country.”

The Congress rushed to back the party vice-president after BJP president Amit Shah held a special press briefing on Friday to slam Rahul Gandhi for his comment. “By making ‘khoon ki dalali’ remarks, Rahul Gandhi has crossed all limits," Shah said. "It was an extreme. By choosing such words, he insulted the bravery of our soldiers and 125 crore people of India.”

Shah claimed that those questioning the authenticity of the surgical attacks were anti-nationals. “The whole country, BJP and its government are standing firmly behind the Army," he said. "We do not believe in the comments of anti-India leaders. We believe in the Army’s bullets.”

War of words

With Shah making it clear that the Army operation will be the centrepiece of the BJP’s campaign in next year’s Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, the Congress party’s worries have only multiplied. An aggressive BJP is now setting the agenda while the Congress is scurrying around for an adequate response. The war of words witnessed between the two parties on Friday presented a brief preview of the bitter electoral battle ahead. The Congress attempted to counter the BJP with a video which shows clips of how Modi tried to score political points from the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and how he had derided the Army when the Manmohan Singh government was in power but the damage has already been done.

However, Rahul Gandhi’s accusation that the BJP is using the army action to score political points has a hollow ring to it. While campaigning for the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, he had proudly declared at a public meeting that Congress was responsible for the creation of Bangladesh. This statement had boomeranged as it drew a sharp reaction from Pakistan, embarrassing the United Progressive Alliance government.

Finding it hard to defend the party, Congress members are hoping that Rahul Gandhi ‘s speechwriters will be more circumspect as the campaign for the UP Assembly elections gathers momentum in the coming months. However, there is little room for optimism as this is not the first time that the party has been left red faced by Rahul Gandhi’s remarks.

He discomfited the cadres when he ran down the Congress after he was named vice-president, saying it is a funny party which has no rules and regulations. His other statements like “poverty is a state of mind”, that “Dalits need the escape velocity of Jupiter to achieve success” and that India is not an elephant but a beehive have proved to be equally embarrassing for the cadres. The list is endless. The party’s fervent prayer now is that he does not add to it.